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T

he Spratly Islandsnot so long ago known primarily as a rich fishing groundhave

turned into an international flashpoint as Chinese leaders insist with increasing


truculence that the islands, rocks, and reefs have been, in the words of Premier Wen
Jiabao, Chinas historical territory since ancient times. Normally, the overlapping
territorial claims to sovereignty and maritime boundaries ought to be resolved through a
combination of customary international law, adjudication before the International Court
of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, or arbitration under
Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While
China has ratified UNCLOS, the treaty by and large rejects historically based claims,
which are precisely the type Beijing periodically asserts. On September 4, 2012, Chinas
foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, told US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that there is
plenty of historical and jurisprudence evidence to show that China has sovereignty over
the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.
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As far as the jurisprudence evidence is concerned, the vast majority of international
legal experts have concluded that Chinas claim to historic title over the South China
Sea, implying full sovereign authority and consent for other states to transit, is invalid.
The historical evidence, if anything, is even less persuasive. There are several
contradictions in Chinas use of history to justify its claims to islands and reefs in the
South China Sea, not least of which is its polemical assertion of parallels with imperialist
expansion by the United States and European powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries. Justifying Chinas attempts to expand its maritime frontiers by claiming
islands and reefs far from its shores, Jia Qingguo, professor at Beijing Universitys
School of International Studies, argues that China is merely following the example set by
the West. The United States has Guam in Asia which is very far away from the US and
the French have islands in the South Pacific, so it is nothing new, Jia told AFP recently.
Chinas claim to the Spratlys on the basis of history runs aground on the fact that the
regions past empires did not exercise sovereignty. In pre-modern Asia, empires were
characterized by undefined, unprotected, and often changing frontiers. The notion of

suzerainty prevailed. Unlike a nation-state, the frontiers of Chinese empires were


neither carefully drawn nor policed but were more like circles or zones, tapering off
from the center of civilization to the undefined periphery of alien barbarians. More
importantly, in its territorial disputes with neighboring India, Burma, and Vietnam,
Beijing always took the position that its land boundaries were never defined,
demarcated, and delimited. But now, when it comes to islands, shoals, and reefs in the
South China Sea, Beijing claims otherwise. In other words, Chinas claim that its land
boundaries were historically never defined and delimited stands in sharp contrast with
the stance that Chinas maritime boundaries were always clearly defined and delimited.
Herein lies a basic contradiction in the Chinese stand on land and maritime boundaries
which is untenable. Actually, it is the mid-twentieth-century attempts to convert the
undefined frontiers of ancient civilizations and kingdoms enjoying suzerainty into
clearly defined, delimited, and demarcated boundaries of modern nation-states
exercising sovereignty that lie at the center of Chinas territorial and maritime disputes
with neighboring countries. Put simply, sovereignty is a post-imperial notion ascribed to
nation-states, not ancient empires.

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hinas present borders largely reflect the frontiers established during the

spectacular episode of eighteenth-century Qing (Manchu) expansionism, which over


time hardened into fixed national boundaries following the imposition of the
Westphalian nation-state system over Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Official Chinese history today often distorts this complex history, however, claiming that
Mongols, Tibetans, Manchus, and Hans were all Chinese, when in fact the Great Wall
was built by the Chinese dynasties to keep out the northern Mongol and Manchu tribes
that repeatedly overran Han China; the wall actually represented the Han Chinese
empires outer security perimeter. While most historians see the onslaught of the
Mongol hordes led by Genghis Khan in the early 1200s as an apocalyptic event that

threatened the very survival of ancient civilizations in India, Persia, and other nations
(China chief among them), the Chinese have consciously promoted the myth that he was
actually Chinese, and therefore all areas that the Mongols (the Yuan dynasty) had once
occupied or conquered (such as Tibet and much of Central and Inner Asia) belong to
China. Chinas claims on Taiwan and in the South China Sea are also based on the
grounds that both were parts of the Manchu empire. (Actually, in the Manchu or Qing
dynasty maps, it is Hainan Island, not the Paracel and Spratly Islands, that is depicted
as Chinas southern-most border.) In this version of history, any territory conquered by
Chinese in the past remains immutably so, no matter when the conquest may have
occurred.
Such writing and rewriting of history from a nationalistic perspective to promote
national unity and regime legitimacy has been accorded the highest priority by Chinas
rulers, both Nationalists and Communists. The Chinese Communist Party leadership
consciously conducts itself as the heir to Chinas imperial legacy, often employing the
symbolism and rhetoric of empire. From primary-school textbooks to television
historical dramas, the state-controlled information system has force-fed generations of
Chinese a diet of imperial Chinas grandeur. As the Australian Sinologist Geremie Barm
points out, For decades Chinese education and propaganda have emphasized the role of
history in the fate of the Chinese nation-state...While Marxism-Leninism and Mao
Thought have been abandoned in all but name, the role of history in Chinas future
remains steadfast. So much so that history has been refined as an instrument of
statecraft (also known as cartographic aggression) by state-controlled research
institutions, media, and education bodies.
China uses folklore, myths, and legends, as well as history, to bolster greater territorial
and maritime claims. Chinese textbooks preach the notion of the Middle Kingdom as
being the oldest and most advanced civilization that was at the very center of the
universe, surrounded by lesser, partially Sinicized states in East and Southeast Asia that
must constantly bow and pay their respects. Chinas version of history often deliberately
blurs the distinction between what was no more than hegemonic influence, tributary
relationships, suzerainty, and actual control. Subscribing to the notion that those who
have mastered the past control their present and chart their own futures, Beijing has
always placed a very high value on the history card (often a revisionist interpretation
of history) in its diplomatic efforts to achieve foreign policy objectives, especially to
extract territorial and diplomatic concessions from other countries. Almost every
contiguous state has, at one time or another, felt the force of Chinese armsMongolia,
Tibet, Burma, Korea, Russia, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwanand been a
subject of Chinas revisionist history. As Martin Jacques notes in When China Rules the
World, Imperial Sinocentrism shapes and underpins modern Chinese nationalism.

f the idea of national sovereignty goes back to seventeenth-century Europe and the

system that originated with the Treaty of Westphalia, the idea of maritime sovereignty is
largely a mid-twentieth-century American concoction China has seized upon to extend
its maritime frontiers. As Jacques notes, The idea of maritime sovereignty is a relatively
recent invention, dating from 1945 when the United States declared that it intended to
exercise sovereignty over its territorial waters. In fact, the UNs Law of the Sea
agreement represented the most prominent international effort to apply the land-based
notion of sovereignty to the maritime domain worldwidealthough, importantly, it
rejects the idea of justification by historical right. Thus although Beijing claims around
eighty percent of the South China Sea as its historic waters (and is now seeking to
elevate this claim to a core interest akin with its claims on Taiwan and Tibet), China
has, historically speaking, about as much right to claim the South China Sea as Mexico
has to claim the Gulf of Mexico for its exclusive use, or Iran the Persian Gulf, or India
the Indian Ocean.
Ancient empires either won control over territories through aggression, annexation, or
assimilation or lost them to rivals who possessed superior firepower or statecraft.
Territorial expansion and contraction was the norm, determined by the strength or
weakness of a kingdom or empire. The very idea of sacred lands is ahistorical because
control of territory was based on who grabbed or stole what last from whom. The
frontiers of the Qin, Han, Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties waxed and waned throughout
history. A strong and powerful imperial China, much like czarist Russia, was
expansionist in Inner Asia and Indochina as opportunity arose and strength allowed.
The gradual expansion over the centuries under the non-Chinese Mongol and Manchu
dynasties extended imperial Chinas control over Tibet and parts of Central Asia (now
Xinjiang), Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Modern China is, in fact, an empire-state
masquerading as a nation-state.
If Chinas claims are justified on the basis of history, then so are the historical claims of
Vietnamese and Filipinos based on their histories. Students of Asian history know, for
instance, that Malay peoples related to todays Filipinos have a better claim to Taiwan
than Beijing does. Taiwan was originally settled by people of Malay-Polynesian descent
ancestors of the present-day aborigine groupswho populated the low-lying coastal
plains. In the words of noted Asia-watcher Philip Bowring, writing last year in theSouth
China Morning Post, The fact that China has a long record of written history does not
invalidate other nations histories as illustrated by artifacts, language, lineage and

genetic affinities, the evidence of trade and travel. Unless one subscribes to the notion
of Chinese exceptionalism, imperial Chinas historical claims are as valid as those of
other kingdoms and empires in Southeast and South Asia. China laying claim to the
Mongol and Manchu empires colonial possessions would be equivalent to India laying
claim to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia (Srivijaya), Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri
Lanka on the grounds that they were all parts of either the Maurya, Chola, or the
Moghul and the British Indian empires.
Chinas claims in the South China Sea are also a major shift from its longstanding
geopolitical orientation to continental power. In claiming a strong maritime tradition,
China makes much of the early-fifteenth-century expeditions of Zheng He to the Indian
Ocean and Africa. But, as Bowring points out, Chinese were actually latecomers to
navigation beyond coastal waters. For centuries, the masters of the oceans were the
Malayo-Polynesian peoples who colonized much of the world, from Taiwan to New
Zealand and Hawaii to the south and east, and to Madagascar in the west. Bronze
vessels were being traded with Palawan, just south of Scarborough, at the time of
Confucius. When Chinese Buddhist pilgrims like Faxian went to Sri Lanka and India in
the fifth century, they went in ships owned and operated by Malay peoples. Ships from
what is now the Philippines traded with Funan, a state in what is now southern
Vietnam, a thousand years before the Yuan dynasty.
And finally, Chinas so-called historic claims to the South China Sea are actually not
centuries old. They only go back to 1947, when Chiang Kai-sheks nationalist
government drew the so-called eleven-dash line on Chinese maps of the South China
Sea, enclosing the Spratly Islands and other chains that the ruling Kuomintang party
declared were now under Chinese sovereignty. Chiang himself, saying he saw German
fascism as a model for China, was fascinated by the Nazi concept of an
expandedLebensraum (living space) for the Chinese nation. He did not have the
opportunity to be expansionist himself because the Japanese put him on the defensive,
but cartographers of the nationalist regime drew the U-shape of eleven dashes in an
attempt to enlarge Chinas living space in the South China Sea. Following the victory
of the Chinese Communist Party in the civil war in 1949, the Peoples Republic of China
adopted this cartographic coup, revising Chiangs notion into a nine-dash line after
erasing two dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1953.

ince the end of the Second World War, China has been redrawing its maps,

redefining borders, manufacturing historical evidence, using force to create new


territorial realities, renaming islands, and seeking to impose its version of history on the
waters of the region. The passage of domestic legislation in 1992, Law on the Territorial
Waters and Their Contiguous Areas, which claimed four-fifths of the South China Sea,
was followed by armed skirmishes with the Philippines and Vietnamese navies
throughout the 1990s. More recently, the dispatch of large numbers of Chinese fishing
boats and maritime surveillance vessels to the disputed waters in what is tantamount to
a peoples war on the high seas has further heightened tensions. To quote
commentator Sujit Dutta, Chinas unmitigated irredentism [is] based on the...theory
that the periphery must be occupied in order to secure the core. [This] is an essentially
imperial notion that was internalized by the Chinese nationalistsboth Kuomintang and
Communist. The [current] regimes attempts to reach its imagined geographical
frontiers often with little historical basis have had and continue to have highly
destabilizing strategic consequences.
One reason Southeast Asians find it difficult to accept Chinese territorial claims is that
they carry with them an assertion of Han racial superiority over other Asian races and
empires. Says Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines law school:
Intuitively, acceptance of the nine-dash line is a corresponding denial of the very
identity and history of the ancestors of the Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Malays; it is
practically a modern revival of Chinas denigration of non-Chinese as barbarians not
entitled to equal respect and dignity as peoples.
Empires and kingdoms never exercised sovereignty. If historical claims had any validity
then Mongolia could claim all of Asia simply because it once conquered the lands of the
continent. There is absolutely no historical basis to support either of the dash-line
claims, especially considering that the territories of Chinese empires were never as
carefully delimited as nation-states, but rather existed as zones of influence tapering
away from a civilized center. This is the position contemporary China took starting in
the 1960s, while negotiating its land boundaries with several of its neighboring
countries. But this is not the position it takes today in the cartographic, diplomatic, and
low-intensity military skirmishes to define its maritime borders. The continued
reinterpretation of history to advance contemporary political, territorial, and maritime
claims, coupled with the Communist leaderships ability to turn nationalistic eruptions
on and off like a tap during moments of tension with the United States, Japan, South
Korea, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines, makes it difficult for Beijing to reassure
neighbors that its peaceful rise is wholly peaceful. Since there are six claimants to
various atolls, islands, rocks, and oil deposits in the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands

disputes are, by definition, multilateral disputes requiring international arbitration. But


Beijing has insisted that these disputes are bilateral in order to place its opponents
between the anvil of its revisionist history and the hammer of its growing military
power.